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Of nature and culture

Sculptural installations by Rosamond Purcell address the rise of science as a way to understand the world and suggest a powerful role for art.

May 26, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

In Boston, tradition is thicker than clam chowder made with cornstarch.

There's almost no escaping it.

Rosamond Purcell is a Boston artist whose work plugs right into established aesthetic tradition -- one whose tangled roots in European and American art date to the 1910s. What's curious about Purcell, who began showing photographs in 1973 and has since branched out into sculpture, is that the tradition her current work evokes is distinctly Californian.

Purcell is a Boston assemblage artist in a familiar L.A. mold.

At the Santa Monica Museum of Art, "Rosamond Purcell: Two Rooms" juxtaposes a loosely related pair of sculptural installations. One is a reconstruction of a famous 17th century natural history cabinet, which is known from a detailed engraving published in 1655. The other is a reconstruction of portions of Purcell's own debris-filled studio in the Boston suburb of Somerville. Together, an early collector's private home-museum, sifted and sorted and redolent of personalized curiosity, stands adjacent to an artist's collection of trash, sifted and sorted from a New England dump and laid out for our perusal.

The original cabinet of curiosities was assembled by Danish physician Olaus Worm, whose son published a book about his father's collection of ethnographic artifacts, natural objects and a few modest examples of classical art. The book's frontispiece featured the elaborate black and white engraving, which details the ingredients of the orderly but jampacked room. Purcell, working with assistants, used that picture as a template for her full-scale reconstruction. Many of the artifacts were borrowed from museum collections.

With a checkerboard floor, leaded glass windows and exposed rafters, Worm's Copenhagen cabinet was apparently a modest yet intriguing amalgam of stuff. Purcell has tinted her re-creation of the room in greenish tones. The objects themselves provide the remaining colors.

Wooden boxes of seashells are catalogued by species or shape. Pieces of petrified wood stand next to tortoise shells. A wall is covered with animal horns and exotic skins, and several taxidermy mammals, birds and fish are lined up on shelves or suspended from the rafters. Several look less scientific than emblematic of science fiction. A mannequin -- one among several fabricated objects -- looks on.

The room embodies an exploratory, rigorously classified approach to the wondrous and even bizarre diversity of natural history. Collections like Worm's marked the early stages of Western culture's slow-motion overthrow of religion as the fundamental organizing principle for understanding the world, in favor of science. The show's juxtaposition of Purcell's second room, based on the artist's studio, with this contemporary sculpture of an old engraving suggests an overthrow of science in favor of art.

Purcell's reconstructed studio includes display cases, shelves, bookcases, shadow boxes and a worktable. Assembled mostly from finds at a rural dump in Maine, the studio installation also emphasizes natural materials and processes. There's a mummified cat and some skulls, but most everything else is a man-made object whose original materials were animal, vegetable or mineral.

A battered open suitcase is filled with once soggy, now dried-out cardboard. Fragments of concrete are adorned with brightly colored cartoons, apparently imprinted from comic books fused to their surfaces by rain and sun. Rolls of old wallpaper, piles of tattered books, mounds of metal toilet floats, junked automobile radiators, rows of assorted toys, plaster knickknacks, the occasional old clock, seashells and much more are displayed. And display is what this room finally seems to be about.

Unlike Worm's scientifically ordered room, Purcell's array is organized according to the artist's internal aesthetic logic. The most flagrantly beautiful section is a long wall and part of a corner, which are covered in flattened sheets of salvaged metal. Oxidized and rusted, the irregular metal wall is densely mottled in a spectacular range of hues -- orange, red, purple, green and gold -- accidental natural patterns that are every bit as gorgeous as the most sumptuously produced Venetian papers in an expensive handcrafted book. Any presumed line between nature and culture is erased.

One thing Purcell's studio has in common with Worm's pre-modern room is the absence of one particular material. I found nothing made of plastic here. Purcell romanticizes decay, natural degradation and the passage of time, which city dumps filled with Pampers, supermarket sacks and Big Gulp cups resist. In the interest of preservation and study, Worm arranged nature's fragments in order to stop time; Purcell, by contrast, coaxes aesthetic delight from the inevitability of ruin and collapse.

Decay is a fundamental component of the assemblage art tradition.

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